Of Love and Desire by Louis de Bernieres, book review

Louis de Bernières's poems too often sacrifice the concrete for generalisations

Andrew McMillan
Thursday 04 February 2016 16:40 GMT
Taking a different path: Louis de Bernières
Taking a different path: Louis de Bernières

When you begin teaching poetry, you often battle students' notions of what poetry is. Some think it dull, many feel like it is archaic, dealing in heightened emotions and that they must somehow emulate an ideal; this straining towards what they see as the poetic means that they end up inhabiting an abstract rather than concrete, relatable realm.

Louis de Bernières's poems too often sacrifice the concrete for generalisations. Poetry must take an abstract idea and help the reader come to a solid understanding of the unknowable by comparing it to the recognisable. "Let us awake to life and warm our hands,/ And let our sins give light,/And glow upon this wilderness", he states in "It Is Time", yet the collection shows its strength when de Bernières abandons such attempts to be poetic, speaking plainly: "let us kiss on cold nights,/forgetting we are old."

Trying to get into the heart of these poems involves getting past archaic, formal diction, ("I saw a dove upon my roof", "And sidled up and tried anew") or the syntax, which often seems to have been inverted to fit the form. A poem like "Skeleton Service" hints at a playfulness that cannot yet escape the bonds the poem has given itself.

Another pitfall is his explanations of an image to a reader: "her ringlets barely tamed,/Much like herself , no doubt" at the beginning of "Gypsy Girl", for example.

A poetic concern, prevalent over the last decade or so, has been how a poem interacts with the page; does it use breath space or "exploded lyric" lines to create silence or tension? De Bernières's book travels down a different path. There is a poem about fishing in the shape of a fish, a poem about Greece in the shape of a vase. One gets the impression, in the capitalisation of each line, the metered verse, that de Bernières cares little for current fashions. The poems exist in a different, separate world; a world of Louis de Bernières' own making.

In "The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon", de Bernières describes the moon : "Brilliant, pocked with lakes and seas,/ Calm, benevolent, majestic, / Female in heart and womb." It ends with the words: "unfit for human love". This hints at a fragility that one wishes there had been more of; away from the moon, away from heightened language, poetry often resides in simple expressions of the truth.

Harvill Secker, £12.99. Order at £10.99 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

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